When members of a board advising the federal government on national parks resigned en masse this year, the Trump administration said it welcomed the news.
But new internal emails obtained by The Washington Post show Trump officials pleaded with angry board members to stay on despite their mounting frustrations with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
The email records, released under the Freedom of Information Act, provide an inside look at the unconventional way the Trump administration has handled nonpartisan boards of outside experts advising the government on energy and environment issues.
The National Park System Advisory Board was authorized by Congress in 1935 to advise Interior Department leadership on how to run the national parks. By law, the board also must sign off on all new national landmarks.
Yet the internal emails show that didn't go as planned. Emails show board members worried Zinke was sidelining them as he reviewed the work of more than 200 outside committees to make sure they reflected the Trump team's priorities.
In October, Tony Knowles, the board’s chairman and a former governor of Alaska, emailed Zinke requesting he meet with the board. The board met with both of Zinke's predecessors under President Barack Obama, Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell.
Knowles didn't get a response. The next month, he followed up by email with Mike Reynolds, who was then the Park Service’s acting director. Knowles said the board members interpreted Zinke's silence to mean that “our Board will be dismissed.” (That month, Zinke had announced the creation of a new “Made in America” outdoor recreation committee that covered much of the board’s portfolio.)
Reynolds, a 31-year Park Service veteran who in January was reassigned to run Yosemite National Park, responded in a flurry of emails over the next several days urging Knowles and the others not to quit. “I regret anyone feeling disrespected and I can’t control their behavior,” Reynolds told Knowles in response to the Nov. 8 message.
“I’m sorry there is no response from the Secretary yet but I hear that occurs to many groups right now,” Reynolds wrote. “They have not focused on advisory groups … as other administrations have.”
A few days later, Knowles warned Reynolds that a “number of members of the Board are suggesting that we all ‘resign as a protest.’ " Reynolds tried to reassure Knowles that higher-ups at the Interior Department wanted to keep the board going, since the department was requesting nominations to fill vacancies on the board.
Finally on Nov. 16, Reynolds emailed the entire board. “With so many competing requests for meetings, it is just taking a long time to get any response from the Department,” Reynolds wrote. “I apologize for this, and share your frustration. Please hang in there.”
Despite Reynolds's best efforts, 10 of the 12 board members decided to pull the plug on their membership in January. “We understand the complexity of transition but our requests to engage have been ignored and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new Department team are clearly not part of its agenda,” Knowles wrote in a resignation letter to Zinke. “I wish the National Park System and Service well and will always be dedicated to their success.”
Publicly, the department was quick to blast the decision as a “hollow and dishonest political stunt.”
“We welcome their resignations and would expect nothing less than quitting from members who found it convenient to turn a blind eye to women being sexually harassed at national parks,” Interior Department representatives said in statements to reporters following the mass resignation. It referred to a widely acknowledged culture of sexual misconduct in the Park Service, on which Zinke has pledged to take “action."
When reached for comment on the internal emails, which showed a different tone, Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift referred to past department statements on the resignations.
In an email this month to The Post, Knowles bemoaned that the board's concerns were not taken more seriously.
“I think we were all disappointed to see the response to our letter was not to address the issues but to snidely 'welcome' our resignation and fabricate a charge that we were a political Board and 'turned our face' on the sexual harassment issues in the National Parks,” he wrote. “It is so sad that our level of discourse and the treatment of volunteer public service has fallen to this level.”
Zinke disbanded at least one advisory body — the Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science, which aimed to help policymakers incorporate climate analysis into long-term planning. He also revived another panel, the Royalty Policy Committee, which had lapsed under Obama.
The Trump administration has grand ambitions for the Park Service, which faces a $11.6 billion backlog in much-needed repairs across the country. Zinke and many members of Congress want to pay for the upgrades with money the government collects from energy development on public lands.
The national park board never had the chance to formally weigh in on the infrastructure fund.
Although the board is required to meet twice a year, it never convened during Trump's first year in office.
|You are reading The Energy 202, our must-read tipsheet on energy and the environment.|
|Not a regular subscriber?|
— Pruitt’s Capitol Hill prep: Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt is heading to the Hill on Thursday for two back-to-back hearings without support from the White House. The Daily Beast reports the EPA rejected an offer from the White House to prepare Pruitt for his hearings, which are likely to include grilling over the recent revelations involving the administrator’s spending habits. The agency essentially told the White House to “get lost,” per the report.
— Meanwhile, several Senate Republicans are calling for increased congressional scrutiny of Pruitt’s spending decisions, but stopped short of asking the administrator to resign, The Post reports. Some highlights:
- John Neely Kennedy (La.): "I don’t mean to be too harsh, but you can’t just go around acting like a big shot, and you can’t go around seeing how close you can come to the line, and you can’t go around disrespecting taxpayer dollars. You can’t do it. You shouldn’t do it. And it shouldn’t be tolerated. That’s part of the swamp that we’re trying to clean up.”
- Ron Johnson (Wis.): “It’s not in my committee’s jurisdiction. But let’s face it, what you hear is troubling.”
- Susan Collins (Maine): "The ethical allegations against him make it very difficult for the department to focus on its mission and are a distraction. They add to my concerns about his policy decisions."
- John Barrasso (Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee: “I have questions about use of taxpayer dollars. I want to make sure taxpayers are getting value for their dollars, make sure money is being spent appropriately. So there continue to be serious questions.”
- James M. Inhofe (Okla.), a longtime Pruitt ally and former EPW chair: “If some of the things were true, I’d have to look at that. I’m checking out to see how authentic the accusations were. I don’t know that yet.”
— The possible loss of support from Inhofe is significant, writes the New York Times: It means "that Pruitt is in big trouble," John Feehery, a Republican strategist, told the newspaper. After weeks of unwavering support for Pruitt publicly, the Oklahoma senator finally this week called for an investigation into the ethical allegations.
— There's a new sheriff in the newsroom: EPA special agent Pasquale Perrotta, the agency's so-called sheriff under Pruitt, moonlighted for tabloid news publisher America Media Inc. during the 2016 presidential election, the New York Times reports. The company's publications, including the National Enquirer and Radar, “have put an emphasis on helping Mr. Trump and hurting his rivals, including endorsing his presidential bid,” per the Times. Though he acquired a waiver from the EPA at the time to hold outside employment, Perrotta’s work has “become the subject of scrutiny in both the agency and Congress.”
— Meanwhile, two Democratic lawmakers are calling on the agency’s internal watchdog to investigate Albert Kelly, an ex-banker banned from working in the finance industry who Pruitt hired to oversee the Superfund program. “Mr. Kelly came to this position without the necessary qualifications, and with serious and still-unexplained red flags, and his conduct has raised ethical, regulatory and potential legal issues that we believe your office should examine,” Reps. Don Beyer and Gerald E. Connolly, both of Virginia, wrote in a letter to the agency's inspector general.
— Back to policy: Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Pruitt on Tuesday questioning a memo that gave the administrator the authority to make decisions about water pollution standards. The letter from Sen. Tom Carper (Del.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.) says the memo leads to questions about Pruitt’s “commitment, as EPA Administrator, to follow the law ... as well as to ensure that Clean Water Act decisions are based on established science and precedent, and conducted in a transparent manner,” per the Hill.
— Also on Tuesday, the EPA finally unveiled its controversial rule limiting what research the agency can use to only studies where the underlying data is made available publicly. While scientists and public health groups warn that the rule would block the EPA from using long-standing studies on air pollution and pesticide exposure, Pruitt described the new approach as an advance for transparency. “The science that we use is going to be transparent." he said.
What was not transparent was the announcement at EPA headquarters, to which many members of the media were not invited. As Brady Dennis put it:
— We won't always have Paris, but... French President Emmanuel Macron highlighted some of the issues dividing the two countries during remarks from the White House on Tuesday, including how to protect the environment. "It is together that we will be able to act effectively for our planet," Macron said. "I'm not just referring to climate, but also to the oceans, to biodiversity, and to all forms of pollutions. On this issue, we do not always agree as to the solutions, but in the end, such is the case in any family and in any friendship.” Macron was one of several world leaders who unsuccessfully tried to convince Trump last year to stay in the Paris climate accord.
— Elsewhere in Washington, former vice president Al Gore again predicted the Trump administration was not likely to change its mind about withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. “I don’t think he’s going to change on that,” he said at a Tuesday Axios event.
Gore also compared the Trump presidency to a science experiment gone wrong. “We’re only a year into this experiment with Donald Trump. Well, in science and medicine some experiments are terminated early for ethical reasons,” he added.
— Zinke’s birther ties: Ryan Zinke put a conservative commentator, who has pushed birther conspiracy theories, on the board of his super PAC in 2012, CNN reports. Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely, who also appeared on Zinke’s radio show, “Commander Z,” in April 2013, had been quoted in a July 2012 news release about Zinke’s anti-Obama super PAC Special Operations for America, and was listed as one of the six board members.
The super PAC also linked to an article Vallely wrote that suggested “civil uprising” was not “out of the question” to stop Obama, who he wrote was pushing for the rise of “radical Islam, the caliphate, and Jihad — the slow infiltration and dismantling of our American institutions,” per CNN.
— Sign of the times: In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage has backed down from his opposition to signs on Interstate 95 directing motorists to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, per the Associated Press. The state’s Department of Transportation now plans to install road signs pointing out the monument, which LePage opposed when designated by Obama. The change also comes Zinke decided to recommend the monument stay intact.
— Beagle 2.0: For the second time in two years, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) has traveled to a spot where the effects of climate change are evident. Smith, chairman of the House Science Committee and one of the chamber's most vocal climate science skeptics, led a bipartisan group of lawmakers to the Galápagos Islands this month, per E&E News. Thea McDonald, a committee spokeswoman, said climate change was not a major topic during the congressional delegation’s visit but “a researcher told the lawmakers that climate change plays a role in all the scientific studies being conducted on the islands,” per the report. Last year, Smith led other congressmen on a trip to Arctic Alaska and Greenland.
— In 15 years, the Arctic has experienced shrinking sea ice, melting permafrost, the general decimation of its habitat and other phenomena, captured in a video that compiles thousand of NASA satellite images. The Post’s Angela Fritz writes about how the video “attempts to illustrate the shift.”
— GE’s overseas wind plans: U.S.-based General Electric is set to test the world’s largest wind turbine in a facility in England, per Reuters. GE Renewable Energy, the renewable branch of the company, signed a five-year agreement with British government-funded Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult to test the turbine.
— Permian potential: The Permian Basin is set to become the world’s largest oil patch over the next decade, per Bloomberg News. The basin’s output is expected to reach 3.18 million barrels a day in May, according to the Energy Information Administration, which would be a record for output since the agency began keeping track in 2007.
- The House Natural Resources Committee holds an oversight hearing on “The Weaponization of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Implications of Environmental Lawfare.”
- Bloomberg Government and the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce will host discussions on Investing in a Sustainable Energy Future.
- SAIS Energy, Resources and Environment Program holds an event on energy infrastructure.
- The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers holds a 2018 Security Conference.
- The Center for Energy Science and Policy holds the second annual Mason Energy Symposium on Thursday.
- The House Natural Resources Committee holds an oversight hearing on offshore energy revenue sharing or gulf producing states on Thursday.
- EPA chief Scott Pruitt will testify on the EPA's 2019 budget request before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment on Thursday.
- Scott Pruitt testifies before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies on Thursday.
- The United States Energy Association holds an event on The Plains CO2 Reduction Partnership on Thursday.
- The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation holds an event on “Closing the Innovation Gap in Grid-Scale Energy Storage” on Thursday.
- The Center for New American Security holds an event on geopolitical risks and opportunities for lower oil price era on Thursday.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs will hold a legislative hearing on various bills on Thursday.
- Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds a lunch and learn event on Friday.
— Somewhere over the Arctic Ocean, NASA spotted something it can’t explain: “We saw these sorta-circular features only for a few minutes today,” scientist John Sonntag, who took the photo of seemingly random patterns of holes in the sea ice, wrote from the Operation IceBridge mission. “I don’t recall seeing this sort of thing elsewhere.”